Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sunday Hunting Proposal Sparks Fierce Debate

Wildlife watchers fear danger of sharing outdoors
Sunday, November 27, 2011
SOMERSET, Pa. -- On a brisk Sunday afternoon at Laurel Hill State Park, 12-year-old Elaine Adams craned her neck to watch red-tailed hawks circling over the lake. Her father Steven Adams pointed skyward. Getting outdoors is a family tradition, one that Mr. Adams said he fears could be put in jeopardy by state legislation that would require his family to share the outdoors with hunters on Sundays.
"My daughter and I like to get out on the weekends, bring binoculars and watch the wildlife," said Mr. Adams, of Westmoreland County. "If we can't get out on Sundays because hunters are out there, it would take away quality father-daughter time in our family."

Not far away at State Game Land 50 near Somerset, Karl Adkins of Berlin helped his son John, 14, to sight in the boy's .30-06. "Hunting is one of the safest outdoor sports, and all the studies show that," said Mr. Adkins. "I work on weekdays. Why is it that [we] have only one day a week to go hunting together? That can't be right." As the Adkins and hunters statewide gear up for the opening day of firearm deer season Monday, state legislators are gearing up for a vote, still unscheduled, that could result in the legalization of Sunday hunting.

Public hunting is the main tool states use to manage wildlife. It is also an economic engine, estimated in a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study to bring Pennsylvania more than $1.5 billion annually.
On Sundays in 39 states, including New York and Ohio, hunters share the wild places with hikers, bicyclists and other outdoors users. West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina and South Carolina permit some Sunday hunting with restrictions.

Pennsylvania is one of six states, all in the East, in which hunting on Sunday is banned (hunting foxes, coyotes and crows on Sundays is permitted in Pennsylvania). Sunday hunting has been illegal here since the 1870s, when it was included in a long list of "blue laws" that enforced a religiously inspired day of rest. Fishing on Sundays was illegal until 1937, and many restaurants were closed on Sundays until the 1970s. The state's restrictions on Sunday liquor sales is among a dwindling set of laws considered archaic by many Pennsylvanians.

House Bill 1760 would remove Sunday hunting from the blue laws, transferring authority from the legislature to the state Game Commission, which would be mandated to implement some form of Sunday hunting within one year of passage. Board members of the agency, which is funded mostly by hunting license fees but chartered to manage wildlife for all Pennsylvanians, voted this year to support the bill.
Unlike many Harrisburg disputes, this debate isn't partisan. Supporters and opponents are lining up on cultural, not political, fault lines.

The bill was introduced by Rep. John Evans, R-Crawford, chairman of the House Game and Fisheries Committee. It is generally supported by Democrats on the committee, including Rep. Marc Gergely of White Oak. The committee's Democratic chair, Rep. Ed Staback of Lackawanna, is co-sponsor of the bill and introduced similar legislation last year. And in 2008, shortly after another Sunday hunting bill began making the legislative rounds, the administration of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell started a PowerPoint campaign to tout the benefits of expanded Sunday hunting. Sunday hunting is less a political battle than a social quandary that touches many Pennsylvanians at a personal family level.

"This has never been a political issue. There's no Republican or Democratic way to manage wildlife," said former state representative Dave Levdansky of Forward, who is a hunter. Last November, when Mr. Levdansky lost his seat after 26 years in office, he was the Democratic chairman of the House Finance Committee and a member of the Game and Fisheries Committee, a strategic perch from which he influenced issues vital to sportsmen. In office he supported several bills that would have made hunting on Sundays legal.

"The reason Sunday hunting failed in previous passes through the legislature was that legislators didn't want to have to face their constituents after the vote," he said. "This bill gives supporters political cover [because] it gives the call to the Game Commission. They can say, 'I didn't vote for Sunday hunting -- I voted to take it out of the blue laws and make it a wildlife management issue in the hands of the Game Commission, where it should be.' "

The bill has attracted national attention. Supporters, including the National Shooting Sports Foundation, National Rifle Association, U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, Wildlife Management Institute and Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation. They cite favorable hunting safety data compiled by the Game Commission, new reports on the economic benefits of an added day of hunting, and share the view that the Sunday ban is a form of government intrusion on their family life.

"First is the misguided idea that sportsmen are in some way asking for special treatment," said Evan Heusinkveld of the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, during a recent House Game and Fisheries Committee hearing. "What we are asking for is to be treated just like every other group of people in the Commonwealth who are able to recreate as they see fit seven days a week."

Supporters also cite the economic impact of adding another day for hunting. In a 2005 report, the bipartisan Legislative Budget and Finance Committee estimated that Sunday hunting would create 5,300 new jobs and generate $629 million per year in Pennsylvania. Two recent studies by Sunday hunting supporters updated those figures to as many as 8,200 new jobs created and $777 million in revenue.
Opposition to the bill lines up on three fronts: a religious belief that Sunday hunting violates a day some consider the Sabbath, concerns about increased trespassing and a perception by many bikers, runners, hikers and other outdoor users that it is dangerous to occupy the same space as hunters. Even some hunters oppose Sunday hunting for any of the above reasons.

"It's a safety issue, pure and simple," said Steven Adams, at Laurel Hill State Park.
Religious opposition is harder to measure. Jerry Wolgemuth, communication director for the Susquehanna Conference of the United Methodist Church (representing 924 congregations in Central Pennsylvania) said pastors in the conference hear little from followers about Sabbath issues, including Sunday hunting.

"If someone's going to be literal about the Scripture, the Sabbath is Saturday, not Sunday," he said. "And certainly Sunday isn't the Sabbath for people of other faiths. The Sabbath is a concept, not a day. We're a rather large umbrella with people who disagree on a lot of things, but hunting on Sunday, or allowing someone to hunt on their property on Sunday, wouldn't break any rules in our Book of Discipline."
Many farmers, however, enjoy a day of rest -- religiously inspired or not -- when they don't have to field requests from people in blaze orange to hunt on their land. Mark O'Neill, media spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, said while many of the state's farmers invite hunters to thin crop-killing deer from their farms, they appreciate a day with no hunters even if that means welcoming a government-imposed restriction on how they can use their land. The Farm Bureau represents 53,000 farms and rural families and is the biggest institutional opponent of House Bill 1760.

"We oppose any form of expansion of the current Sunday hunting law, period. We oppose turning the decision-making process over to the Game Commission," he said. "This issue is more than just a wildlife management issue. There are multiple levels to our opposition." Mr. O'Neill said the bureau fears increased defiant trespass problems, and the "perception" -- he stressed the word -- of safety issues among non-hunters, noting hunting's safety record.

Two weeks ago at the Farm Bureau's annual meeting in Hershey, members defeated two resolutions that would have supported lifting the ban on Sunday hunting on State Game Lands and private commercial hunting preserves. They supported resolutions that would require hunters to carry written landowner permission while on private property and increase trespassing penalties. "Over the past few decades, farmers have evaluated several resolutions during our annual meeting that would have allowed a limited form of Sunday hunting in the state," said Farm Bureau president Carl T. Shaffer, in a written statement. "But each time, those resolutions were resoundingly defeated during our policy development process. Pennsylvania Farm Bureau members are sending a clear message by defeating these resolutions: We oppose any effort to change the existing Sunday hunting law."

The Ohio Farm Bureau had similar reservations but reached a compromise with state legislators. At a recent legislative hearing in Harrisburg, Jeff Watkins, a former vice president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, testified that a deal which strengthened trespass laws ultimately won the bureau's support, helping to swing the Ohio vote in favor of Sunday hunting in 2002. After passage of the Ohio law, Mr. Watkins said he anticipated problems would arise. "But they never did," he said. "I believe farmers feared change more than the issue itself."

The biggest fear among opponents to Sunday hunting is for the safety of non-hunters. The sound of gunshots in the distance can be frightening to some outdoors enthusiasts. But a 2008 report by Gov. Ed Rendell's advisory council for hunting, fishing and conservation issues ranked hunting low on a list of injuries per 100 participants. Football (No. 1) and cheerleading (No. 6) were considered more dangerous than hunting, which was ranked the 29th most dangerous outdoor recreational activity.

Game Commission data on hunting-related shooting incidents includes all Pennsylvania events in which someone was physically injured by a firearm discharged in a hunting situation. Yearly incident statistics list 23 categories including, whether the victim was hunting or "non-hunting." Carl Roe, the agency's executive director, said few hunting accidents involve non-hunters -- most are self-inflicted or a hunter is injured by another hunter. In 2010, with nearly 930,000 hunters afield and 35 hunting-related shooting incidents, four involved victims who were not hunting; two of those were fatal. From 2001 to 2010, with more than 9 million general hunting licenses sold, there were 473 incidents in Pennsylvania. Forty-one involved non-hunters, including four fatalities.

"The challenge in coming up with a statistical rate of non-hunting victims is, if you have so many accidents per 100,000 and four non-hunters injured last year, it's statistically so small it's hard to get a significant number larger than the margin of error," said Mr. Roe. "But we think that one hunting accident is too many, and hunter education programs have really increased the safety of the sport -- you're as likely to be hurt in a hunting accident as getting struck by lighting. But it's a perception -- a fear -- that we're challenging, and it's hard to beat a perception."

Mr. Roe said if legislators vote to legalize Sunday hunting by March, the Game Commission would move slowly to have the first elements of Sunday hunting rules in place for the 2012-13 hunting seasons.

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